For Rich Jaroslovsky, vice president of content for Smart News and adjunct faculty in the campus media studies department, there is one big question in terms of media presence in today’s elections:
“Is the polarization in society driving the polarization in media coverage,” Jaroslovsky asked. “Or is the polarization in media coverage what’s driving the polarization of society?”
Over the course of his career, Jaroslovsky noted the way people consume political news has changed substantially. With the emergence of cable television, the internet and more recently social media, he added that the previously larger and more diverse mass audience has become fragmented.
According to Jaroslovsky, although this process has been ongoing for the last 40 years, the explosion of social media has “taken it to a whole new level,” where information is now targeted and tailored to specific audiences.
“Instead of having a few outlets that appeal to a broad range of people, you now have an unlimited number of outlets, each of which is trying to appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate,” Jaroslovsky said. “It creates this echo chamber or filter bubble where all you are hearing is what you want to hear or what the technology platforms know you will react to.”
But in the evolving age of technology, the implications of its effects on elections are still being understood.
According to Brandie Nonnecke, director of Our Better Web and founding director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, or CITRIS, Policy Lab at CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, the media is an ecosystem, but social media in particular has become “ubiquitous.”
“For social media we are in a completely different space,” Nonnecke said. “The Wild West; uncharted territory.”
Nonnecke noted there is a chain reaction where certain narratives being pushed on social media can be picked up by the mainstream media, which then work to the benefit of those respective political campaigns.
However, in order to understand this phenomenon, Nonnecke said transparency is key. The best strategy — according to Nonnecke – is to call for platforms to make their data available for independent researchers to better understand their effects on political news.
“There should be requirements placed on social media platforms to be more transparent about the type of content being spread and how they are spreading that content,” Nonnecke said.
Lecturer in campus’s media studies department Ian Davis asserted a similar idea. He noted that although researchers are “wary” of blaming the media for broad voting behavior as the assumption fails to acknowledge the role of other factors, it is still likely to have a broad influence.
Davis added that just as the media has a role in influencing elections, the relationship works both ways. Specifically, he noted that advertising and campaign funding from elections suggests power in the realm of the media.
Davis also noted that groups with a stake in certain propositions can raise hundreds of millions of dollars, with much of it going towards advertising budgets to buy local media and targeted advertising.
“We have a good example on the ballot in California. Votes on gambling regulation are attracting record levels in fundraising,” Davis said in an email. “Prop 27 pits online gaming companies like DraftKings against local Native American casino owners.”
According to Nico Savidge, reporter for Berkeleyside, the work of journalists can be especially important in local elections.
Because there is less competition compared to larger state- and nationwide elections, people depend more on media coverage to offer nonpartisan, trusted information to help determine their priorities, Savidge added.
“The way I try to think about my job is helping people have the information they need to make informed decisions at the ballot box,” Savidge said. “What we want is for people to know fully the stakes, the pros and the cons of their decision and then be able to say ‘This is my vote, this is how I want the community I live in to change.’ ”
With the influx of information from the abundance of media outlets from local to national, Jaroslovsky noted that active attempts to mislead — disinformation — is a real concern.
Jaroslovsky added that people sometimes use the concept of free speech to mask disinformation.
“The last six years have at least shown us what the dangers are,” Jaroslovsky said. “I am really concerned about the backlash where people under the guise of defending ‘free speech’ are actually defending the ability of bad actors to create disinformation and get it in front of large numbers of people.”
However, Jaroslovsky remains hopeful about the rising generation of young journalists.
He added that young people are in journalism for the right reasons, and hope they will combat disinformation and contribute to political news coverage.
“That makes me optimistic about the future – smart young people recognising a problem and want to help fix it and are gravitating towards journalism,” Jaroslovsky said. “That’s exactly what we need.”